not in our stars, but in ourselves
In the early days of cinema – from the 1910s through the end of World War I – serials were popular around the world. In the beginning, “feature” films weren’t quite a concept just yet. A movie might be a reel or so – twelve minutes per reel, give or take – and some of the more enterprising filmmakers and producers realized that a great way to drum up some more money from giddy audiences was to present extended stories in serial form. Louis Feuillade was an extraordinarily successful purveyor of this particular film: he conceived and directed immensely successful serials Les Vampires and Fantômas, as well as Judex. After the war, more and more directors gravitated towards what we now consider feature length films (which weren’t exactly invented by D.W. Griffith, but which were certainly given more force and power than they’d had before), and the serial was relegated to the assortment of low-budget amusements that used to play before each feature film at the big movie houses. After a few decades and another war, the serial format seemed relegated to television, and reduced to its early primitivism (and that’s being generous). Feuillade’s brilliant, bizarre film series might have been long-forgotten historical curiosities – if it hadn’t been for the dedication of Georges Franju.
Franju’s Judex takes the twelve chapters of Feuillade’s original, distills them, and presents them as a unified whole – a feature film, you know. The immensely wealthy banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) has received a threatening letter signed “Judex” – Latin for “judge” or “avenger.” Favraux must make amends by six o’clock the next evening, Judex writes, or he’s done for. Favraux sets a private detective, Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau), on the case and resumes his preparations for the engagement ball he’s throwing for his daughter Jacqueline’s (Édith Scob) impending second marriage. At the party, Judex (Channing Pollack) makes an appearance – wearing a bird mask that covers his entire head. Favraux appears to die in front of all his guests. Jacqueline learns of Judex’s letters and of her father’s cruelty, and renounces her inheritance. This enrages her young daughter’s governess, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), who’d been stringing Favraux along in order to marry him and make her and her louche boyfriend, Morales (Théo Sarapo), rich. They seek to destroy Jacqueline while Judex seeks to keep Favraux imprisoned for life in an elaborate, panopticon-style cell beneath a crumbling castle. Judex knows that Jacqueline is an innocent among all this income inequality and – after saving her once from Diana and Morales – promises her that he’ll come to help her if she ever needs it again. She does. Judex swoops in, the bad guys are defeated, and J et J live happily ever after.
Geoffrey O’Brien, in his terrific Criterion essay that I can’t recommend highly enough if you’ve seen Judex, writes:
Franju, although greatly admired by many of those [French New Wave] directors, never quite fit in with any group. Self-defined as an anticlerical anarchist (“An anarchist with a tender heart,” according to Judex’s coscenarist Francis Lacassin), he displayed throughout his career an unmistakable intransigence in his commitment to a private vision that could take many outward forms: the nearly expressionist exposé of the mistreatment of the insane in Head Against the Wall, the fusion of formal beauty and surgical horror in Eyes Without a Face (1960), the seeming reversion to the French “tradition of quality” in the underrated François Mauriac adaptation Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962). One thing these otherwise very different films have in common is a sense of being steeped in the obsessive power of black-and-white images, images that Franju dwells on patiently until they yield irrational lyrical revelation. Franju may have been the last director whose work was truly rooted in the aesthetics of silent movies.
O’Brien also notes several other things: that silent films often have the feel of a dream; that Franju excelled in recreating this cinematically induced hypnogogia; and that Franju’s personal connection to, and abiding love for, Feuillade’s films ensured that he was the best man to resuscitate them. In O’Brien’s words, again: “Franju was in the position of someone trying to convey the splendors of an inaccessible original by distilling them through his own poetic imagination into a wholly independent work, an act whose profound fidelity can be measured precisely by the ways in which he changed his source. He is never more faithful than when he is doing it differently, as if chipping away irrelevancies to get at the essence of Feuillade’s vision.”
I confess: I haven’t seen the original 1916 Judex, so I’m handicapped. I can’t discuss the poetry of Franju’s remake against that of Feuillade’s initial series. I can, however, tell you that Franju’s Judex is almost literally a dream of a film. Some of that is the mise-en-scène, which feels as if it’s from both 1916 and 1963, and yet from neither and nowhere. Franju shot in a museum – hence the impressively Art Nouveau furnishings and details – but there was just no way (there’s never been a way) to erase the era in which the film was actually made. None of it feels anachronistic, however; no more than when you dream about some earlier time and find yourself in it. It all rings true, in a dream-logic way.
Something struck me about Judex, even though (before watching) I wasn’t fully aware of its serial origins (as I said: I hadn’t seen Feuillade’s original, so I understood – at best – that it was a remake or an homage or something to an early cinema hit): whereas most feature films we see feel more like a novel, this really did feel like a string of short stories strung together. If I may lean on my favorite old crutch, Nabokov, it was more like Pnin than Lolita. That’s not a slight, of course. There’s something immensely pleasurable about watching each chapter build and swell and resolve itself – before another cliffhanger! – before moving onto the next. Serial audiences used to rely on this guarantee, from week to week. Franju clearly remembered and adored that guarantee, and built it into his own film. The world had become a scary, uncertain place – a tendency that’s only gotten worse – and it’s awfully reassuring to slip into the lovely, balletic dreamworld that Judex offers.